Swanee Hunt, founder and Chair of The Institute for Inclusive Security, has a new article in Foreign Affairs on the role of women rebuilding Rwanda.
Women blew past the 30% quota set up by Rwanda’s new constitution and now hold 64% of seats. Women say a quota is no longer necessary, because the culture has changed. How did that happen? Watch this video to find out »
After genocide decimated Rwanda two decades ago, the country’s women spearheaded the efforts to rebuild and heal. Now other nations come to Rwanda to learn.
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"We have put in all the efforts to make sure that this group of the community is part and parcel of the government of our country….We still have a long way to go, but what is important is that there is a will, there is good leadership.” Listen to the interview with Oda Gasinzigwa, a member of the cabinet in Rwanda.
This success, in many ways, was driven by women. With domestic ingenuity unrivaled on the continent, they helped create an African success story. Doing so, they set an example that offers powerful lessons for other conflicts.
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Visit the Isange One Step Centre where survivors of sexual violence can seek medical treatment, counseling services, and legal help filing claims against their attackers. The design is intended to ensure that the patient has to tell her story only once.
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Photo: Dirk Gebhardt / Laif
After the massacres stopped, Rwanda lay in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of bodies were piled on roadsides. Churches and schools were destroyed; offices and businesses looted. Electricity was erratic, running water non-existent, and governance minimal. Above all, the nation was traumatized by the heinous crimes that had decimated the population. Nearly a million of Rwanda’s eight million people had been killed in 100 days, during the culmination of decades of ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis.
Because most of those killed were men and because many male perpetrators fled to neighboring nations, 70 percent of Rwanda’s post-genocide population was female. Faced with ensuring their families’ very survival, women stepped up. Mothers took in orphaned children and organized support groups for widows. Women moved from cleaning buildings to reconstructing them. They farmed and started businesses. Throughout the country, they created stability in the aftermath of unspeakable violence.
As perhaps the most iconic woman leader, the late Aloisea Inyumba (pictured at right and top of page) oversaw crucial elements of Rwanda’s reconstruction. After a national listening tour, she devised programs to rebuild her country. One of those was a new five-tiered system of local to national women’s councils, addressing key issues such as health, education, and security. She was a vocal advocate of work to find homes for orphans and homeless youth, helping convince families to adopt hundreds of thousands of children without regard for ethnicity.
Aloisea Inyumba. Photo courtesy of The Independent.
Women played key roles in Gacaca (pronounced gah-CHA-cha), a kind of truth and reconciliation process that operated most often at the community level. Perpetrators of relatively “lesser” crimes faced the families of the victims, who benefited from the chance for their grief to be aired. Women served as the national director, as judges, and as key witnesses. By 2012 nearly two million perpetrators had come before these tribunals.
Women held 3 of the 12 seats of the commission tasked with drafting a new constitution for Rwanda, approved by referendum in 2003. Encouraging and reflecting the rise of women into both informal and formal leadership, the commission established a 30 percent quota for women throughout government as well as a gender monitoring office.
The five-tiered system proved a dramatically effective leadership development scheme for moving civil society leaders into responsible government positions. With 30 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for women, the council system fed those from lower levels into the reserved positions. Soon the women with the highest profiles and the most experience began running against men in non-reserved positions, and winning. Today, with 64 percent of its seats held by women, Rwanda’s parliament leads the world in female representation.
Credit: Ever Binamungu
Despite concerns about its uneven transition to democracy, Rwanda is acknowledged by many—20 years after the genocide—as one of the most stable nations in Africa, remarkably corruption-free. In only ten years, life expectancy has risen from 48 to 58 years. Deaths of children under five have been cut in half. A compulsory education program has put boys and girls in primary and secondary schools in equal numbers. Women can now own and inherit property and are active leaders in all sectors of the nation, including business. National mandates and programs are reducing violence, including violence against women.
Photo: Eric Miller
Alice Karekezi may be best known for spearheading a coalition against gender-based violence that led to the labeling of incitement of rape as a crime of genocide, in the landmark 1998 conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu. But her work is much broader. As a lecturer at the National University’s Faculty of Law in Kigali since 1996, she has researched Gacaca, an indigenous mechanism reintroduced for the pursuit of both justice and reconciliation, drawing on her work with women who survived sexual violence, along with her experience as a gender monitor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and a lawyer in Paris in the early 1990s.
Ms. Karekezi also co-founded the Center for Conflict Management at the National University, heading the justice, human rights, and governance program. She has lectured and trained widely at institutions ranging from UN centers in Japan and Switzerland to universities in Canada, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sweden, and the United States. Among other projects, Ms. Karekezi is designing and leading training sessions on human rights and gender sensitivity for regional standby peacekeeping forces.
Minister of Gender and Family Promotion Oda Gasinzigwa, born in Tanzania to Rwandan refugee parents, joined others in the struggle to reconstruct the country of her heritage after the genocide. In 1998, officials at the gender ministry selected her to work with the National Women’s Council Secretariat. In that post, Ms. Gasinzigwa played a valuable role in collaboration with women at the grassroots on reconciliation and poverty reduction programs. Elected national President of the NWC in 2004, she has continued promoting gender equality and women’s participation in all aspects of national development.
From 2005 to 2009 Ms. Gasinzigwa represented women on the Rwandan Government’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, which coordinates activities in communities and schools to promote peace and eradicate divisions among Rwandans. During that time, in 2008, the government also nominated Ms. Gasinzigwa to head the Gender Monitoring Office, a post she held until her 2013 appointment as Minister. The GMO, the first of its kind in the region, was constitutionally established to monitor implementation of gender principles throughout the country.
Odette Nyiramilimo recalls that professional opportunities for women were rare when she was growing up and that, later, she couldn’t get a bank loan because she was female. Still, she managed to become a physician, and survived the genocide under truly harrowing conditions. She was among those profiled in the 1998 book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families.
Ms. Nyiramilimo worked in various public hospitals and later continued in private medical practice together with her husband at Le Bon Samaritain clinic. After 1994, she not only practiced as an obstetrician and gynecologist, but also counseled rape victims and widows and participated in various women’s associations to rebuild the country. She served as Minister of State for Social Affairs from 2000-2003. Elected to the Senate (2003-2008), she chaired the committee for human rights, social affairs, and petitions. Before the end of her senatorial term, Ms. Nyiramilimo was elected to a position representing Rwanda in a prestigious regional parliament, the East African Legislative Assembly.
Attorney Christine Tuyisenge worked nearly 15 years to ensure the rights of women and of children in Rwanda through the nonprofit organization Haguruka. The association provides legal aid and counseling to children and vulnerable women, along with legal education to local authorities and the public. Ms. Tuyisenge contributed to the amendment of discriminatory laws against females, helped establish shelters for abused women, and coordinated legal assistance throughout the country.
Complementing her work with Haguruka, she served for two years as vice president of Pro-femmes/Twese Hamwe, a 22-year-old umbrella organization of 59 associations in Rwanda whose mandate is the advancement of women, peace, and development. In 2008, she moved into two new roles in which she continues to serve, as vice president of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide and also as executive secretary—the senior career staff member—of the National Women’s Council, a forum that empowers women to participate effectively in development programs countrywide, from village to national levels.
Fatuma Ndangiza, born in Uganda, has promoted reconciliation, gender equality, and good governance from both inside and outside the Rwandan government. Currently, she wears multiple hats including that of deputy CEO for the Rwanda Governance Board and chair of the African Peer Review Panel of Eminent Persons, which reviews and monitors national governance processes.
Photo courtesy of The New Times.
Previously, as Ambassador and High Commissioner, she was her country’s top diplomat in Tanzania (and accredited to several other countries) from 2009-2011. A former long-time executive secretary for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, she helped Rwandans come to terms with the past and collectively search for sustainable peace.
Today, their homegrown reconciliation model provides inspiration and lessons to post-conflict societies elsewhere, as well as to scholars and peace-building practitioners. As a researcher and policy analyst, she contributed to reports assessing East African integration and social cohesion, and guided the development of Rwandan civic education, conflict resolution, and genocide prevention manuals.
Earlier (1994-2002), Ambassador Ndangiza championed women’s rights to access economic opportunities and participate in decision-making. She led women’s NGOs and chaired the task force that established the National Women’s Councils.
President of the National Women’s Council Beatrice Mukasine was a young high school teacher in Rwanda’s Southern Province when schools closed during the genocide. Afterwards, she began reuniting displaced children with families, whether their own or an adoptive family.
As a social worker, she interviewed children to learn where they were from and then traveled to those communities to find out whether any immediate family members had survived and remained in the country. She often spoke with more distant relatives about taking in orphaned or abandoned children.
For five years, Ms. Mukasine devoted her time to children’s and women’s rights, initially through emergency response efforts and then on longer-term projects. She helped establish social development committees throughout the country, raising awareness about changes in the law that allowed women to inherit property.
Later, she led gender training programs for the Ministry of Gender, before taking a post in Kigali in 2001 with the Dutch nonprofit organization SNV (Netherlands Development Organization), where she has held various positions. She took up her duties for the National Women’s Council in 2013 but continues as an SNV adviser on both good governance and on water and sanitation programs.
As a trained veterinarian, Aisa Kirabo Kacyira worked in Rwanda immediately after the genocide, helping desperate families raise cattle. She has insightful, poignant, and occasionally humorous stories about her work, including with women who sometimes had little previous experience taking care of cattle but had to learn fast after losing their husbands.
With her knowledge of the everyday needs of families, Ms. Kacyira was later elected to Parliament and also served at various times as Mayor of Kigali and Governor of Rwanda’s largest province (with a population of 2.5 million). Under her leadership, Kigali won the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor Award in 2008 for achievements in environmental sustainability and improved living conditions.
She speaks from broad, firsthand experience about the myriad ways women from across Rwanda have met the challenges of rebuilding their country. In 2011, Ms. Kacyira was appointed by the UN Secretary General as UN Habitat’s Deputy Executive Director at the agency’s headquarters in Nairobi. Her global travel in that position has given her an even broader perspective on the accomplishments of Rwandan women, and she continues to support a range of gender equality initiatives globally.
Read Ambassador Swanee Hunt's five-part series on rebuilding Rwanda featured in the Global Post:
View a recent Harvard Kennedy School John F. Kennedy Jr Forum program, "Can Women Stop War?" which includes Rwanda's Ambassador to the US, Mathilde Mukantabana, commenting on the "narrative of ascent" of the women of her nation.
Inclusive Security advances global peace by providing expertise grounded in research that demonstrates women’s effective contributions to security writ large. The Institute, founded in 1999, has worked with more than 2,000 women leaders from 40 conflict zones, strengthening them through targeted training and mentoring, helping them to build coalitions, and connecting them to policymakers. Based in Washington, DC, The Institute for Inclusive Security is a program of the non-profit Hunt Alternatives Fund.